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Times Past | A stir among the people

CHINA told us a long while ago that every place in the country was self-sufficient; traveling around and finding local staples in all hotels I took this message for granted. Now, involuntary investigation has brought it home to me all the more.

Because of the dislocation of traffic during the Cultural Revolution, many things - cigarettes, matches, soap, toilet paper - became scarce. There was no rush to hoard, perhaps because scarcity was sudden, announced and rationed at the same time, so that everyone had an equal share. Stimulated by these shortages and by Mao's directives on promoting production and becoming self-sufficient, creativeness surged in Kaifeng.

Not only did quantity increase, but quality as well. Kaifeng cigarettes became more abundant, and reached export quality. Soap, at first black and very soft, became lighter and harder. Toilet paper was first offered in sheets of rough brown, dried on household walls; now it is good quality, and neatly packaged. And many rations have been lifted.

There is a stir among the people. Not only have scarce products become common; new ones have been developed by inventive hands. Badges of Chairman Mao were brought out some months ago, and as their quality rose, orders increased; from the college, the Revolutionary Committees, and various factories with something to commemorate, so that now it is a thriving business, and anywhere in town one sees stores, where badges with new facings are displayed, swamped with customers. Many of the workers are becoming artists.

Others too have found a new ability. Some, months ago a couple of Mohammedans experimented with a small bust of Chairman Mao. Soon they were producing them, and they were to be seen in many Kaifeng houses. The Mosque lent its outside courtyard, where we discovered them three months ago. There were twenty people at work, smoothing the gypsum at the crevices of the mould, and working on larger busts as well, for again artists had appeared, and their moulds of concrete and gypsum were increasing.

Many groups of Red Guards visiting Kaifeng were given a bust, and carried it away. Now the factory has about one hundred workers. They have two courtyards and a few small rooms; outside the Mosque is a grassy spot filled with large baskets in which their wares are packed, for they receive orders from other provinces even up to a thousand miles away. Hans have joined Mohammedans, though it is probably only the latter who stack the moulds neatly inside the Mosque. When we asked if we might enter we were told: certainly, if we took a bath in the bath house, an adjunct of every mosque.

The erasing of lines where the moulds meet is now outside work, done by dozens of families living nearby, who also dry the busts and figures, standing them in the sun.

We asked if they did any educational work, and were told that at the end of the day and in the mornings, something of Chairman Mao's is read, mostly by the children aloud to the others. Many of the outside workers deliver their goods or call for more at these times, to take part in the readings and the discussion which follows.

The outside work is simple but must be done carefully; it is delightful to see children, and old people too, erasing with care and placing the finished statuette in the sun. Youngsters grew careless during the Cultural Revolution; this, and multiple other work is training them into the old habits of China, where agile fingers and care for detail are coming up again, old habits in new work.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001, reprinted from SACU News April 1969

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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